By Melissa Coburn
The Easter break was a perfect time for a declutter, yet the bag of old letters wasn’t getting any smaller. To measure the letters only by whether they sparked joy would be to have misunderstood their significance. They sparked all kinds of emotions that made them worthy of retention.
There were hundreds of them, written by friends in their twenties, reporting on adventures abroad or romances in various stages of complexity, against a backdrop of study.
The Black Forest in Germany was “enchanting”, plans were in train to visit “Peru ... for lots of unknown adventure” including taking “the famous Inca Trail to the ancient city of Machu Picchu”. Study was planned in Italy, or a trek through Turkey and Syria to Cairo. Voices, full of curiosity and enthusiasm, tumbled out of the letters.
The subject of love featured prominently. Sadly, only one friend’s conviction that she had “found her Gilbert” (a reference to L. M. Montgomery’s much-loved Anne Shirley novels) proved to be correct. The signs were already present in other letters, reporting that the future had become a taboo subject or on some betrayal, that other romances would not last. Maybe that was the purpose for which the letters were written: to clarify the writer’s thoughts.
My first year university timetable, included in the pile of letters, shows a weekly total of only 16 contact hours for the arts/law degree. The expectation in law was that for every contact hour, three hours of private study would be required. The subject of study and exams continue throughout the letters.
The letters record a shift in our outlook at the age of 25. In birthday cards, lighthearted jibes are made about suddenly being old.
The letter writing diminished around that time as jobs kept us occupied. The letters that did arrive were shorter , dashed off between seeing patients or clients.
Children arrived and the letters became shorter still, full of apologies for not having written earlier or at greater length.
In addition, a certain impatience with the social scene crept into some of the letters, reporting that little pleasurewas derived at parties from “the shallows of politeness” or conflated tales of self-discovery through travel or the new topic of home renovations.
What was important then may seem trivial when judged by older eyes, yet there was magic in those times.
These letters cannot be decluttered by reference to joy. They are important, personal, historical records. They capture youth, vibrancy, uncertainty and heartbreak. Perhaps one day these letters will enable their writers to return momentarily to that distant time, filled with colour and chaos, and discover the true voices of their younger selves, in all their sorrows as well as their joys.
Melissa Coburn is a Melbourne writer.